From its opening reedy, high-pitched whistle of a cold wind, the foreboding nature of The Dark and the Wicked becomes clear: Something unnatural and unholy is coming, and there is nothing we — the viewer or the characters on-screen — can do to stop it. This sense of morbid inevitability is at the heart of Bryan Bertino’s new film, which is openly about ferocious nihilism as much as it is about anything, and if a character expresses hope or happiness at any point during its compact ninety-five minute runtime, you can bet that fate is going to make them look like a fool. Even the moralistic message that often lurks under the surface of many horror films is absent here; the evil in this film appears to be Biblical in nature, but faith and virtue are no more effective at stopping it than denying its existence altogether.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t any guilt at play. Building on what’s practically becoming a subgenre unto itself in recent years, The Dark and the Wicked grounds its horror in difficult emotions around family bonds — specifically, the guilt an estranged child might feel about “abandoning” their parents. It’s established early on, when siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr.) arrive at the family sheep ranch in rural Texas. Their father (Michael Zagst) has been ill for quite some time, and his children have come home for a final reunion before he dies. It’s been years since Louise and Michael last spoke and they’ve fallen out of touch with what’s going on back home, too.
That realization hits like a ton of bricks about fifteen minutes in, as Bertino chooses an absolutely brutal development — Mom (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) chopping her fingers to bits with a kitchen knife before hanging herself in the barn — to really get the plot going. In their attempts to understand this shocking event, committed atheists Louise and Michael, much in the vein of Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist, are eventually forced to admit that the threat to their family may actually be supernatural in nature. As the priest played by Xander Berkeley ominously puts it while on a house call: “Do you think the wolf cares if you believe he’s a wolf? Not if he finds you alone in the woods.”
Another element The Dark and the Wicked shares with The Exorcist is some of its ruthless staging of scenes where a demon taunts a mortal by taking the form of a deceased loved one. Yet thankfully, for the most part Bertino stages the movie’s scares from the same detached perspective as he does the more mundane sequences of grim familial duty. And occasionally the two are mixed, but what stays the same is the ruthlessness of the emotions.
The entire film is suffused with deep shadow, frequently lit by a single, direct bulb that throws harsh white light across the part of the screen that is visible. Characters appear as silhouettes in front of open doors, black as the death that has inexplicably fallen upon this seemingly ordinary family. It’s far from original when it comes to its scares, but Bertino stays away from being overtly derivative, for the most part; still at times feeling un-thrillingly expected. So while that’s the “Dark,” the wicked arrives with acts of sacrifice and of cowardice that reap the violent glee with which the being that torments Louise and Michael’s guilty consciences has through each moment. Although its bleak worldview may be a turnoff for viewers who like movies to be a bit more life-affirming, if you’ve ever said to a friend, “it’s so deranged and messed up, you should check it out,” The Dark and the Wicked is a film that lives up to its title. Cloaked in misery and helplessness, The Dark and the Wicked finds inescapable evil in a familial interweaving; a film where vicious nihilism reins and directorial efficiency at times shines.
The Dark and the Wicked is available on VOD